Why Wales Never Had A Walter Scott

Think of something typically Scottish and images of highland games and tartan and imaginary lake monsters will no doubt come into your head. For the most part these images are modern creations, a part of a fantasy built up during the nineteenth century, and very little to do with ancient or traditional Scotland or Scottish culture at all. For over two hundred years, however, these images have persisted and through popular culture have cemented themselves in the public imagination. But why did this happen in Scotland? Why not with other parts of the British Isles? Why not, for example, with Wales?

The answer lies in a late eighteenth and nineteenth century mania for all things Scottish. The originator, the progenitor, if you will, of this mania was undoubtedly Walter Scott. The impact of Scott was far reaching and the revival of Scottish culture which he presided over lasts to this day. Though Robert Burns must also take some credit, it was Scott who created much of what came to be seen as typically Scottish. Through his novels he popularised an image of Scotland as a romantic, wild nation full of dashing outlaw heroes like Rob Roy and Bonnie Prince Charlie. Scott did not always invent these ideas or characters but he often added his own elaborations or romanticisms, many of which caught the public imagination and ended up sticking themselves to the reality.

Walter Scott (Henry Raeburn, Public Domain)

In 1822, when George IV visited Scotland (the first Monarch to do so without militaristic intentions since James I/VI) it was Scott who organised the proceedings, presenting the king as both the true heir of the Stuart monarchies and a highlander by having him dress in tartan. The attention paid by the general public towards this visit served to not only endear the king and the Hanoverian monarchy towards the people of Scotland, but also increased the perception of Scotland in the eyes of the English, particularly in the eyes of the elite.

It was Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, however, who really sent the mania into overdrive. The pair were big fans of Walter Scott and by choosing Balmoral as their country retreat they ensured that the English middle and upper classes would also buy into the idea of Scotland, with those who could afford to buying their own landed estates so as to get close to the royal family or as a way of imitating them. For those who couldn’t afford it there was always a tartan rug or something else that was a bit cheaper than an estate. It was through the royal family’s patronage and what was, for them, a genuine love of Scotland that many of the ideas first invented and elaborated upon by Scott were able to flourish and persist for most of the next one hundred and fifty years.

This was, of course, all a fantasy and one that in recent years has been much discredited. It is only really since the mid-nineties and an increase in depictions of modern Scotland in films such as Trainspotting that the image of the hairy, ginger, kilted Scotsman which the novels of Walter Scott eventually gave rise to has faded. When Groundskeeper Willie was first introduced to The Simpsons in 1991 it was still a massively prevalent image. Some Scots were even complicit in the depiction with The Beano (published in Dundee) frequently featuring some large, prancing man in a tam-o-shanter and kilt, often saying ‘och-aye-the-noo’ just to reinforce the point that he was Scottish. After Trainspotting and devolution there was a real shift towards more realistic portrayals of Scotland, leaning towards grittier, more urban portrayals. This image, today, has supplanted the old image that Scott first formented.

Frank Leavis (Courtesy of the Leavis society)

Scott himself has been declining in popularity since the mid twentieth century. Influential criticisms were in part to blame for this. Mark Twain ripped him apart in Huck Finn and literary critic Frank Leavis said, in 1948, that Scott was no more than a peddler of children’s fairy stories. E.M Forster went even further, ripping him to pieces as ‘slapdash’ and ‘clumsy.’ These criticisms, I think, are unfair to a man who had so much influential, who put Scotland on the map. What Leavis and Forster neglect to mention is the impact which Scott (and what came after) had on the culture and perception of Scotland. Yes, much of what he wrote was a romanticised fantasy but without him there would be no Scotland as we know it today. Scottish culture, even a none fantastical version, would hardly be known outside the British isles. There would have been no Groundskeeper Willie, no kilted man prancing across the pages of The Beano with the words ‘och-aye-the-noo’ in a speech bubble over his head. Queen Victoria may never have bought Balmoral and that means the current Queen would not go up there for her summer vacation. There would also, I think, be fewer modern portrayals of Scotland, no Trainspotting for instance.

Before Scott Scotland was not a highly thought of place. The Jacobite rebellions of 1715 and 1745 had served to sour relations with the English. The country was even thought of as being a bit primitive and backwards. The historian Edward Gibbon once theorised that a race of cannibals lived in Glasgow and Dr Johnson reckoned that ‘the noblest prospect which a Scotsman ever sees is the high road to England.’ Without Scott and his influence this preconception might have lingered much longer, perhaps even to the present day.

Walter Scott was not solely responsible for the image. There were the people who came after him, like Queen Victoria. To a lesser extent there was also Robert Burns, who did much to preserve the existing language and traditions of Scotland, providing a framework which Scott could then build upon. Burns instilled a national pride in Scotland and to this day he is still lauded yearly, the great chieftain of the pudding race held on high with a feast of neaps, tatties and haggis- Which reminds me, the Beano Scotsman would usually have a haggis somewhere on his person, it would be labelled just so you knew what it was.

The Welsh Not- A punishment for speaking Welsh (from wrexham.gov.uk)

Which, finally brings me to Wales. Wales did not have a Walter Scott. Whilst there were poets they did not have one with the fame of Robbie Burns. Whilst Queen Victoria did make visits to Wales she never endorsed the country in the way she did Scotland. We can say that there was an interest in Welsh culture and history and traditions during the nineteenth century but the extent to which it extruded beyond Wales was a limited one. The reason for this is likely three-fold. Firstly, as they did with Scotland, the English (in particular the English upper classes) had a strong animosity towards Wales, even stronger than they did with Scotland. The English did not believe Wales to be a nation. One report into Welsh education, published in 1847, stated that the language was the predominant cause for the Welsh being ‘ignorant, lazy and immoral.’ School children were discouraged from speaking Welsh in school and even punished for doing so. This hostility towards Wales and Welsh culture meant that, outside Wales, the environment for any kind of cultural interest to exist in any great degree

Admittedly, before Scott, such an environment did not exist for Scotland either but for Wales there was the additional barrier of the language. Until the mid-nineteenth century many of the Welsh populace, especially in the more rural parts, spoke little to no English. This had the effect that much of Welsh culture was insular and liable to be unknown or misunderstood outside of the country. It also meant that there were far fewer people writing English language literature than there were in Scotland and so there was far less chance for a Walter Scott like figure to emerge. English language literature (from Wales) did not come to fruition until the early twentieth century, long after the decline of romanticism, and almost all of those earlier pioneers are today practically unknown, even in Wales.

The third problem was that Scotland was far less industrial than Wales and so remained untouched enough to still be considered wild and romantic. Almost all of Wales during the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was industrialised in some way, even areas that today we would consider wild and untouched were heavily industrialised. Snowdonia was dominated by slate mines and in the south were much heavier industries, coal and steel. Areas that weren’t taken up by industry were given over to farming. The landscape of Wales, at the time of romanticism, did not entirely lend itself to the movement. It was, you could argue, a thoroughly non-romantic landscape.

An eisteddfod- Clearly fantasy (courtesy of National Museum of Wales)

This said, and despite the lack of a Walter Scott like figure, there were still some cultural revivals and romanticisms connected to Wales. The biggest and most well-known of these is the eisteddfod, a celebration of music, literature, language and culture. It was first founded out of an earlier medieval tradition and much like the novels of Walter Scott it was a romanticised fantasy. Although earlier, medieval eisteddfodau were about poetry and had bards competing to win the ultimate prize of a chair at the lord’s table (a chair is still given to the winner) they probably did not have the same druidical flavour and ritual which is given to the modern day eisteddfod.

Much of what was actually going on in Wales during the romantic era can be seen as part of a wider medievalist movement, (in which Walter Scott played his own part by writing Ivanhoe.) This includes the above mentioned eisteddfod. There was a widespread ‘harking back to the medieval past’ present in all aspects of culture during the eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It was present in architecture, art, literature and music and Wales produced some of the best examples. Examples of medievalist architecture in Wales include Cardiff Castle, Castell Coch and Penrhyn Castle in the north, all of which were and still are elaborate fantasies. In literature there was not only the eisteddfod but also Lady Charlotte Guest’s translation of the Mabinogion, though this was a more straightforward affair than an indulgence in fantasy.

Moving away from medievalism, it was in Wales, in the Wye valley, that the artist William Gilpin formulated the picturesque movement, one of the key components of romanticism. He was followed by a whole raft of artists, the likes of Turner, who painted various picturesque scenes of Wales such as at Dolbadarn Castle and Tintern Abbey and those parts of the Wye that had been popularised by Gilpin. These were, yet again, a fantasy, with liberal uses of artistic licence enhancing the scenery to make it appear more sublime. However, as the picturesque movement spread other regions left Wales in the shadow, the Lake District, the Italian Alps and Scotland all taking over. It is also worth pointing out that many of the landscapes which were utilised by the romantics, such as Turner’s Dolbadarn, were very quickly overtaken by industry. It was not long after Turner’s visit to Wales in the 1790’s that the Dinorwig Slate quarry decimated the mountains opposite the castle, the scars of which can still be seen and visited to this day.

Turner’s Dolbadarn (Public Domain)

However, the one thing that is clearly lacking from the cultural revivals and medievalisms and romanticisms that came out of Wales, is any kind of romanticised novel, any kind of literary champion. In short, a Walter Scott like figure. But does it matter? Did Wales ever need a Walter Scott in the first place? In an age where Scott is seen as little more than a peddler of fantasy and the images conjured by him and his successors seen as derogatory stereotypes, it could be argued that it is a good thing that Wales never had his like. It meant that Welsh culture, on the whole, has been kept closer to its roots than Scottish culture has been. It is, to use a word, cleaner. On the other hand it has meant that Wales, until the modern era and some would say even now, has never quite got the global exposure it deserves. Whereas Scotland has long been seen as a distinct entity within the British isles Wales has either remained largely unknown or is seen as an extension of England.

It is possible that a Walter Scott like figure would have given Wales a chance to have the same global recognition as Scotland- It could have been that as well as Groundskeeper Willie The Simpsons could have had another break-out character in the form of Caretaker Evans, a sour Welshman. As well as the kilted Scotsman The Beano might have frequently featured a dragon riding, bara brith weilding Welsh warrior, always shouting ‘come at me boyo.’- His name being Dai Nerys, naturally. Instead of singing Scotland The Brave people might be singing On the Bonnie, Bonnie Banks of Llyn Ogwen.

As I have shown, Wales did make some inroads into romanticism without a Walter Scott like figure. There were revivals of Welsh culture, as happened with Scotland, and for a period the landscape was similarly celebrated. However, there were obstacles which in Wales presented a Scott like cultural inventor/champion from emerging. There was the strong antipathy of the English, some of whom attempted to stamp out Welsh culture altogether. There was a greater degree of industrialisation, leading to a less romantic landscape, and because of the predominantly Welsh speaking population there was a highly insular culture which was not easily able to spread beyond the Welsh borders.

Modern Wales and Welsh culture is, however, thriving. This is without the aid of a Scott like figure which suggests that it never needed one and probably never will. The results would have been bloody good fun though.

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